Monday, October 31, 2011

New Nanode Programming Lead

We got thoroughly fed up paying £13 plus VAT for a Chinese rip-off of a FTDI lead.

So if you can't beat 'em, feck 'em - and we got our own custom USB to serial programming lead made.

It uses the SiLabs device, but it's pin-out is the same as the 5V FTDI lead. It uses RTS for auto-reset of the Nanode.

We think they are great value at a fiver each.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nanode RF - what it's all about

Since 2005 there has been a huge growth in popularity of small microcontroller boards amongst the hobby-tech community.

This growth has largely been fuelled by the open source Arduino - a simple board, originally produced to help teach students about physical computing. There is an excellent article from Wired Magazine documenting the meteoric rise of this product and the team behind it.

The Arduino hardware is little more than a low cost microcontroller, on a credit card sized pcb, with the necessary support circuits around it to allow it to be programmed from a laptop via a USB cable. There is nothing really innovative in this - but it is the software package that is downloaded from the web and supports Arduino that is the real power of this little processor.

The Arduino IDE (integrated design environment) is a set of open source software tools which allow you to easily write new programs to run on the microcontroller - and perfform a variety of tasks - such as sense the analogue world, generate pretty displays from LEDs or control model toys and robots. In fact the uses for Arduino are virtually unbounded - and a huge wealth of new applications are being generated by the Arduino enthusiasts around the world.

The wonderful thing about open source hardware is that it has the momentum of a community behind it - and from the original Arduino, there have been hundreds of spin-off products, all based on the basic Arduino design implementation and software - and as Arduino evolves, so do all the products following it.

Nanode RF is one such product based on the Arduino design. It shares the same choice of microcontroller, and so is software compatible with the Arduino IDE - but it adds a few more features which greatly increases the functional capabilities.

1. It adds an ethernet interface allowing Nanode to connect to the internet and send and receive data to and from the web.

2. It has an on-board wireless transceiver, which allows it to communicate at distances of several tens of metres with other gadgets fitted with a compatible wireless transceiver.

3. It has a serial port which connects to a laptop through a programming cable which allows new programs to be written to the device

4. It has extra memory in the form of RAM and a removable microSD card

5. A real time clock chip ensures that tasks can be scheduled to happen at specific times and dates.

Primarily, Nanode RF can act as a bridge between the internet and remote wireless devices - perhaps best illustrated with an example.

I have a greenhouse in my garden about 50m from the house, and I wish to monitor the temperature, sunlight intensity, soil moisture and CO2 levels to make sure I have the best growing conditions for my tomato plants. If necesary, I wish to open or close the roof vent, or draw some blinds or activate an automatic watering system - to keep the growing conditions optimum. And moreover - I want to do these things, remotely from my office - about 30 miles away, or indeed from anywhere in the world.

Within the greenhouse we have one device fitted with temperature, humidity, soil moisture light and CO2 sensors - plus some actuators or relays to start and stop the pump of the watering system and open and close the vent and roof-blinds. This specialised version of Nanode is called the remote node. It may be one of several similar devices all of which are monitoring things around the home and garden. A weather-station might be another suitable application, or domestic energy monitoring, or the control and monitoring of your solar heating panels and central heating system for the winter months. These tasks are all within the capabilities of Nanode RF.

So each remote node can send and receive data wirelessly to a central basestation. Think of this as being like a portable DECT handset which can communicate with a fixed basestation which is plugged into the telephone line.

However with Nanode RF we are not commmunicating speech - but simple short packets of data pertaining to whatever is being monitored. These are conveyed back to the Nanode RF basestation, which has an internet connection. TheNanode RF can then transfer this data to web based applications that can be accessed anywhere through a web browser - on a laptop, smartphone or whatever.

Data can travel in either direction - so if you want to remotely start your automatic watering system, a click on a browser button initiates a command which is passed to the Nanode RF basestation. It then broadcasts a message to the remote node and that starts up the irrigation system.

Remote nodes may also send data to one another - rather like using the intercom function on a DECT handset. Some nodes may be fitted with liquid crystal graphic displays - so that they can locally display information that is being generated, or even data that has been sourced elsewhere and conveyed via the web and a wireless link. One such display has been produced by Open Energy Monitor - and is used to display domestic energy consumption.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Latest Update on Nanode RF

Here at Nanode HQ, we have been busy working on some new prototype designs which will come to market in the next couple of months. We're very excided about these new products because they incorporate low power wireless connectivity - and more importantly are compatible with other open hardware devices - produced by some of our friends in the Open Hardware community. Soon we will have lots of low power wireless devices talking together - with a whole bunch of new applications. Here's an update on the first of our new offerings.

Nanode RF is the first of the new products in the Nanode series - and addresses the need for a bi-directional wireless link on the Nanode board. The London Olympics is not the only thing happening in 2012, Nanode RF hits the streets in the New Year.

Nanode RF retains the DIY kit construction technique, popularised in Nanode 5. This makes the project accessible to the likes of schools, colleges, makers and enthusiasts - in fact anyone who can do basic soldering. And being a kit, we continue our emphasis on learning through making, and make a product that can be modified, hacked or re-purposed - according to your needs.

Whilst other hardware suppliers are reducing costs by offering only surface mount products, we are sticking to our philosphy of having something you can build yourself - and repair yourself cheaply - if you happen to fry your microcontroller! That's not to say we refuse to work with surface mount parts - we just like to use them only where necessary - and leave the bulk of these first Nanode designs in traditional through hole components.

Nanode RF uses the RFM12B FSK transceiver module, which is readily available to the hobbyist market from companies such as Sparkfun, Maplin, Farnell etc - and used extensively by the open source design company JeeLabs. You can now incorporate Nanode into wireless sensor networks, and use it to convey your wireless sensor data up to the internet applications - such as Pachube. We are fully compatible with JeeNodes - so with Nanode RF you can incorporate internet connectivity into your existing JeeNode application.

Nanode RF has been developed together with Open Energy Monitor and Wicked Device. OEM have incorporated Nanode RF into their open source emonTx/emonCMS open Energy monitoring system.

When we first started using the RFM12B modules on Nanode 5 for the emonTx basestation, we were fitting them into an expansion connector - using the JeeLabs RFM12B breakout board. This was OK for a few dozen- but it soon became clear that we had to integrate the wireless transceiver module onto the Nanode board. Nanode RF integrates this RF transceiver functionality and adds greater functionality to sensor networks.

Nanode RF is going to be accompanied in a couple of weeks by it's own smart wireless node - Wi-Node. Nanode RF can act as the web connected basestation, commanding and monitoring a network of Wi-Nodes.

At the same time, we took the opportunity to add a few bells and whistles - not all of which need to be fitted for some applications. The idea is that the user can build the basic kit - which only has six more component parts than the standard Nanode, and then add the more complex parts - only if they are needed.

In this way we keep the cost of the basic kit down to below £30 - so you are not paying for functionality you might never use. The cost of the entry level Nanode RF is pitched to be the same as a regular Nanode, plus the cost of the wireless module - if you had to go out and source one yourself.

The extra functions also use up more I/O lines - so if you need the I/O you might have to skip some of the options.

The board has provision for the following options - and we are evaluating these over the next few weeks.

1. Real Time Clock, Alarm and Calendar - uses the Microchip MCP79410 series IC. Has 64 bytes of battery backer RAM and a unique MAC address (79411/12 only). As well as providing real time - this IC can be programmed to wake the Nanode from sleep at regular intervals or at given times. The MCP79410 plus 32kHz crysal can be found at Farnell for 94p plus VAT.

2. Micro SD card socket. Ideal for application where you want to permanently log a lot of data, or you want to serve web pages. You could use the micro SD with a datalogging application such as OpenLog. You can also use the micro SD to hold your Bitlash scripts. The socket is a little fiddly to solder - but a lot easier if you take its metal can off first - see below. Socket is available from Cool Components in the UK for £2.54 +VAT

3. 32K x 8 SRAM. This has now been given it's own 8 pin DIL socket. It's used for bootloading new sketches into the Nanode from the web. Find it at Farnell for £1.23 plus VAT.

4. We are also producing a new low cost programming cable for Nanode. Samples will soon be arriving from China - see photo below. It's likely that we will bundle this cable in with all new Nanode kits at a bargain price, where the customer requests it.

A Minimum Build - The Versatile PCB allows you to add just what you need - In this case just the ATmega328 plus the RFM12B module - for effectively a wireless connected Arduino.

If you just want a wireless sensor board or real-time wireless datalogger, with the familiar Arduino shield connectors - you might consider building up a Nanode RF - but without the ethernet controller and magjack. This combination will be available as an option for around £20.
Here we've added the NuElectronics Nokia 3310 LCD shield to a minimum build Nanode RF - effectively giving a wireless LCD.

Like the current Nanode product - we offer a discount for volume purchases - especially for schools and other educational establishments.

Here are some of the latest photos of Nanode RF.

The RFM12B wireless module and mini USB connector have been fitted.

Here's the microSD socket. This is not easy to solder - unless you take the metal can off carefully first, solder the contacts, then replace the can and solder it in place.
The general view of the underside - still have to add the MCP79410 Real Time Clock and 32.768KHz crystal.
Close-up of the RFM12 module in place - with the antenna soldered .

Here's the general topside view of Nanode RF.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Arrivals in Project Nanode

It's just a week since I was laying out two new Nanode pcbs - and the first of them has just been delivered.

Here's the new Nanode RF - almost built but without the RFM12B module soldered yet - because someone forgot to bring them back from work!

It has already run Blink and the Pachube Analogue Sensor Sketch - so I have confidence that the ethernet operation is just as it should be.

Note the new green LED added and the smaller footprint of a mini B USB socket - yet to be added.

The RFM12B module sits in the bottom left corner next to the voltage regulator - yet to be added - after the RFM12B is in place.

A group of four boards showing the topside and underside.

Underside of the pcb showing several new components - notably the micro SD socket and the Real Time clock and crystal underneath the ATmega microcontroller.

Above - the topside of the pcb shows one or two new component footprints - most notably the pads for the surface mount RFM12B module in the bottom left corner. The Hackerspace logo now accepts an 8 pin DIL socket for an optonal expansion memory device.

Here is the new prototype Nanode RF - just like Nanode 5, but with lots of new features:

1. A Hope RF RFM12B transceiver for 2 way communications with other boards.
2. A microSD card for general datalogging storage, storing applications and webpages
3. A realtime clock IC with alarm function which also holds a unique ID - or MAC address
4. 3V3 operation - but retains 5V compatibilty for use with Arduino shields.
5. An 8 pin socket (under the H logo) to allow you to add non volatile RAM for program download
6. An 8 pin SOIC footprint to accept an alternative memory device - instead of micro SD card
7. mini B USB connector for powering at 5V
8. Four - better spaced mounting holes.
9. Fully sealed vias for better soldering - less chance of solder shorts
10.Improved screenprint for better identification of connections.
11. Extra LED - for monitoring RF activity - or whatever.
12 Super capacitor for maintaining SRAM and RTC non-volatility.

Nanode RF has been produced in association with Megni/Open Energy Monitor - and the first sampled will be deployed as basestations for their EmonTx wireless energy monitor and wireless graphic LCD product.

Nanode RF, although debuting this week at the OSHcamp and Homecamp4 will not be on general sale or volume production until the New Year. This will allow time to port firmware across to these boards and develop applications.

It is anticipated that Nanode RF will be available in 2012 for about £30 - depending on the hardware options fitted.

Open Systems - Events in the UK

It's not often that I manage to blog before an event - but the next week sees some great get-togethers for the Open Systems community in the UK.

The first of the events is the one day open source hardware camp OSHcamp on Thursday 27th. This will be held at the Centre for Creative Collaborations C4CC which is 5 minutes walk from Kings Cross station. There are still tickets left - visit Eventbrite for full details.

The second noteworthy event takes place over next weekend - and is the fourth annual meeting of the Homecamp Community - HomeCamp4. This is also being hosted at C4CC, and will take the form of an unconference, with presentations, demonstrations and workshop/hack sessions. The theme this year is "Hack the House" - with the aim of illustrating how everyday gadgets, systems and appliances can be repurposed or improved with the aim of better efficiency, better usability or new functionality. Last few tickets remaining are also on Eventbrite. This is now a FREE event - thanks to a generous sponsorship from AMEE.

Homecamp aims to bring together proponents of open systems - whether software, hardware or data, in an opportunity for them to share their ideas within the wider community. Saturday 29th will primarily be a presentations day, starting with several key speakers in the morning and then opening the discussion to the floor and offering the opportunity to present or demonstrate in a series of themed break-out sessions. Likely themes will be open systems - including the interaction of hardware and software, and the use of simple, smart open systems around the home to provide better energy efficiency, greater comfort or convenience.

Presentations already confirmed include:

Moixa Technology - a renewables powered - domestic low voltage power supply system

Pachube - Cloud based open data hosting

Megni - an open source energy monitoring system

Project Nanode - Low Cost, Open Hardware for Monitoring and Control

AMEE - an update on platforms and applications for Environmental Intelligence

If you would like to do a short pitch or presentation - please add yourself to the Homecamp4 page on Lanyrd.

Sunday will be more of a hands-on hacking and mash-up day, with the aim of installing an open energy monitoring system at C4CC, and showing how that energy data can be passed via the cloud and used in several interactive applications to improve efficiency and comfort. It will outline the ways in which open hardware and software interact with web hosted open data platforms to create a full end to end open energy monitoring system. If you want to gain hands on experience of home energy hacking - then Sunday will be a must.

If you are working on anything that is easily demonstrated - please bring it along - there will be an opportunity to show and tell.

If you are into Open Hardware, you may wish to have a look at Solderpad - a repository for the design files of open source hardware designs. Solderpad was created by Paul Downey and Andrew Back - who are leading lights in the UK open hardware community and organisers of the Open Source Hardware Users Group - OSHUG - which has regular monthly meet-ups in central London.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wi-Node, Open Hardware ramblings - and the Nanode with Two Brains

Our lives are full of wireless gadgets these days - so with the advent of low cost wireless transceiver modules from Hope RF - I decided to add another wireless gizmo to the list - and so Wi-Node was conceived.

Wi-Node is the starting point for building wireless connected projects- in the same way that Nanode is a dev-kit for internet connected devices. Wi-Node has been produced in the same style as Nanode - as a through-hole kit, with minimal use of surface mount devices, such that most people who have done a little basic soldering and electronic assembly can put one together.

Wi-Node follows hot on the heels of Nanode, and it took some while to ponder the various options, and feature set to produce a device that would be useful in a wide variety of different applications.

It's got the familiar Arduino shield connectors, and a socketed ATmega328. Then there's the wireless transceiver - an RFM12B from Hope RF. In addition there are further options, including a micro SD card for datalogging, a real time clock, a SRAM with battery or super-capacitor non-volatile back-up and a motor driver IC - so you can drive dc motors, relays and steppers straight off the one board.

A couple of things quickly became apparent, the existing Nanode really needs a shield or "backpack" which provides additional functionality and features. The idea of the first Nanode "backpack" was announced a few months ago, and then sat on the back burner, whilst I attended various conferences and makerfaires promoting Nanode.

My social calendar - and Nanode's for that matter - was fully booked all summer, and well into October. What with keeping up with the kitting of large batches of Nanodes to meet the sales demand - my spare time was fairly tight.

However, last weekend, I managed to spend the whole weekend with my CAD application - and managed to rattle out a couple of new designs - one of which is Wi-Node, and the other is under wraps for at least another week or so until the pcbs arrive and have been tested.

The revelation came to me when I was looking at a Minuino - a half sized Arduino clone board, by Spikenzie Labs - which was handed out as a promotion in the goodies-bag at the Open Hardware Summit in New York - in mid September.

Minuino was about as minimum as an Arduino can get - the ATmega processor, a crystal, a LED a few caps and a reset switch - very similar in content to the RBBB or the stripboard Arduinos I built a couple of years ago. Add the ubiquitous FTDI header for programming and you have a very low cost 'duino.

Whilst pondering the minimal nature of Minuino, I happened to sit it - as a shield - on top of a Nanode I had in my bits- box. It then occurred to me that if I built up the Minuino, fitted it with a processor and stacked it on top of a Nanode - which had its processor removed from the socket - then the processor in the Minuino would effectively drive the Nanode from the "top deck" as it were.

It then followed on from this idea, that the shield or backpack could be designed around any processor one wished, for example, a larger ATmega, and ARM or a PIC - and this would effectively be a processor upgrade for the humble Nanode. The much maligned (and misaligned) set of shield connectors effectively becomes the system expansion bus - and all you have done is add a new cpu card. I'm probably showing my age now - but it is important to reflect back upon earlier days, and realise that all Arduino is, is a homebrew computer with a different bus.

But why stop at Nanode? - any of the older Arduinos where the processor is socketed, could have a new processor grafted in - and the remainder of the Arduino board, just becomes a power supply and serial communications platform. In some cases this might appear to be a fairly pointless exercise, unless your platform happens to be a Nanode, and you want to use it as a Internet connection to the transplanted processor.

So thus was born the idea of the "Smart Shield" - where the shield has its own processor and hardware goodies on board - which when added to an existing Nanode - with it's processor popped - becomes a serious upgrade for the Nanode and a major boost in functionality.

It was here that I was reminded of the cult college film Steve Martin's "The Man with Two Brains" - effectively what I am proposing is the equivalent of a "Cranial Screwtop" for Nanode - if you don't know what that is - watch the film - or google it.

Moving on. What would you want to add to the Nanode to improve its functionality (and don't all shout a Wiznet W5100)?

I conducted a straw poll of the Nanode Users on IRC, and the top four answers were:

1. Wireless Connectivity - with a Jeenodes compatible RFM12B transceiver
2. SD card for datalogging storage
3. Real Time Clock with battery backup
4. Some high current drivers - for motors relays etc - with easy screw terminal connections

So with a little help from my friends, I have added all of these around a ATmega328 , and crammed it all onto a 55 x 64 mm pcb (plotted above) - which looks remakably like a shield - or - backpack - or whatever.

But wait a minute - if you pop this backpack off of the Nanode, you now have a standalone wireless node, which can be deployed in its own right, anywhere around the home or garden, and communicate back to the Nanode, and so up to the web. And so thus Wi-Node was born - a dual purpose board that can act as either a shield or a standalone device.

So here's some specifics on Wi-Node

It has the following features:
1. ATmega microcontroller 16MHz
2. 868MHz wireless transceiver Hope RF RFM12B (433MHz or 915MHz as options)
3. 32K x 8 nonvolatile SRAM with super capacitor for non volatile backup
4. Real Time Clock with super capacitor non volatile backup - using the cool Microchip MCP79411 - which contains a unique ID - i.e. MAC address
5. Micro SD card for datalogging
6. 4 analogue/digital inputs – tolerant to 15V
7. 4 high current drive outputs – 600mA for motors, relays steppers etc
8. Analogue inputs and digital drives brought out to 3.5mm pitch screw terminals
9. Serial interface/expansion/programming port
10. Battery operation where needed 3 x AA 3.6V 1100mAh
11. 62 x 23 x 103 mm case
12. 5V Solar power option
13. Compatible with Nanode, Arduino and shields

Points 7 and 11 are probably worth a little more explanation.

The Wi-Node has been laid out to take a L293D - which is a popular dual H-bridge power driver IC - as used in the Adafruit motor shield. However, if you look at its pinouts, it is possible to fit four economical N-FETS in its place - if you only want 4 channels of low-side drive for relays etc. If you want full direction and speed control of two motors, or one stepper - then you fit the slightly more expensive L293D.

The point is - you have that option. Wi-Node is going to be released as a low cost pcb, with various build options to suit the individual application requirements. If you are building a wireless heating controller, you probably just fit FETs for driving relays. If you want to build wireless controlled robots - the dual H bridge is likely to be the best option.

Wi-Node is pitched at the intermediate builder who wants to try their own creative ideas around wireless and Nanode - but without having to produce one's own custom pcb.

There will be a basic kit of parts, plus a set of options. Wi-Node was designed to fit into an off the shelf plastic case - and this will be offered separately as an option. Other options include

1. RFM12B - with or without, and choose your own frequency from 433MHZ, 868MHz and 915MHz.
2. Realtime clock IC and super capacitor
3. SRAM IC and super capacitor
4. H Bridge driver
5. Power mosfets
6. micro SD card option
7. Plastic case
8. Pluggable screw terminals
9. Serial programmer adaptor cable

All of these options use standard components from a variety of mainstream suppliers - such as Sparkfun and Newark in the US, and Cool Components and Farnell in the UK. So if you want to buy a basic kit first then expand later at your own pace - then that's easy to do.

Wi-Node will be available towards the end of November, priced around £20 for the basic kit, and options costing between £2 and £5.50 each.

As you effectively need two Wi-Nodes to talk to each other - one as a shield on the basestation, and the other as a remote node - there will be a special bundles offer of a node and shield pair for £30.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Ethical Open Hardware - a new business model

Having been a freelance hardware design engineer since 2005, I needed a company to channel myendeavours, and so founded Arbour Wood Ltd. in 2007,

I have had 25 years of hardware design, including super fast video processing at BBC Research Department in the early 1990s, to large volume consumer electronics and telecom devices manufactured in southern China.

I traveled extensively between China and the USA, working to insane production schedules, In the spring of 2005, I decided to pause for breath, to reassess my career, and find a more sane way of working, yet building on my skills, network of colleagues and experiences, to find a different way of working, at a time when the world was flat out with globalisation.

Arbour Wood designs simple products that hopefully others will find useful, which will help us to lead lower impact lives and improve our domestic energy efficiency. A combination of simple, low cost microelectronics and smart application software, will allow us to automate, monitor and control systems within the home, leading to better usage and reduced energy consumption.

I was introduced to open hardware early in 2009, by Trystan Lea of Open Energy Monitor, and quickly realised that this was an alternative business model which very much suited the fledgling Arbour Wood. Working in co-operation with other designers, programmers and enthusiasts, Arbour Wood has road-mapped a range of open source products, which will challenge the perceived standards for consumer technology, and redefine the envelope of electronic manufacturing.

Writing in the week that Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, passed away - reminded me of an interview Steve made in the late 1990s where he said that he and Woz (Steve Wozniak) only founded Apple in 1976 to make cool stuff. i.e. home computers, that he could sell to his friends. Forty years later, that is very much the philosopy of Arbour Wood.

Nanode was conceived late in 2009, when I realised that there was a need for a very low cost means of connecting devices to the internet. At that time the cheapest solution was an Arduino and an ethernet shield which would cost perhaps £40. Ken took the key components from that combination, stripped the design to a minimum and set a ceiling price of £20 - effectively halving cost of the previous solution.

In today's world, where much of our everyday consumer technology, such as smart phones and tablets are manufactured in vast factories in Southern China, it is easy to lose track of the technology, and we are rapidly approaching a situation where the key to designing these and future products lies in the minds of a few dozen engineers. The open hardware movement hopes to re-address this situation, and produce designs which are not only freely copyable , but designed in a way where they can be manufactured anywhere in the world, and bring new employment opportunities to developing communities. Nanode was designed with this in mind, and uses through-hole components allowing it to be built with simple handtools, by practically anyone who has had a basic course in soldering.

Nanode was developed in association with the London Hackspace, and it is through the hackerspace movement, that Arbour Wood believes that it can distribute its products and designs. In early October, Mitch Altman and Bilal Ghalib traveled to Cairo to help establish a hackerspace there. Several Nanode kits were donated to the Africa Makerfaire in Cairo - thus introducing the visitors to a product that they can build themselves. With Mitch's "Soldering is Easy" course - translated to many languages, on offer at the MakerFaire - the local enthusiasts are now well prepared to build Nanodes and related devices.

The next product underway from the Arbour Wood design studio, is a wireless sensor and actuator board - compatible with Nanode and capable of switching a number of relays and motors and interfacing to a wide range of sensor hardware.